New approach to fighting cancer involves … 3D printing extra tumors?

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When it comes to innovative cancer treatments, most approaches focus on one thing: Removing the cancerous tumor as quickly as possible. A new technique developed by Swedish biotech company Cellink takes a different route, however: 3D printing more of the cancer cells.

That may sound counterintuitive, but it’s actually part of a significant advance on the path toward personalized cancer therapies. It involves taking a small piece of a patient’s tumor, multiplying the cells, and then using Cellink’s technology to bioprint the patient’s tumor in the lab.

“A bioink is a material that mimics an extracellular matrix environment to support the adhesion, proliferation, and differentiation of living cells,” Erik Gatenholm, CEO and co-founder of Cellink, told Digital Trends. “Bioinks distinguish themselves from traditional biomaterials such as hydrogels, polymer networks, and foam scaffolds due to their ability to be deposited as filaments during an additive manufacturing process.”

When the tumor tissue replica has been printed, oncologists and other researchers have the opportunity to test various types of treatment — such as chemotherapy — to determine which the tumor responds best to. By using 3D bioprinting, researchers are able to further understand and discover the treatment that suits an individual patient. Since cancer therapies have, to date, been limited by our understanding of how exactly cancerous tumors grow, this may represent an important breakthrough. As Gatenholm told us, “No two cancers are 100 percent alike. Personalized healthcare can be taken to new heights with the use of this technology.”

Right now, the technology is still in its experimental stages and not yet ready to be rolled out to the general public. “At the moment, cells [and] tissue samples from real cancer tumors are being used to experiment,” Gatenholm said. “In the near future, we hope to be able to offer this as an option to those fighting cancer. We look forward to taking this journey and impacting the future of personalized healthcare. It’s important to understand that we are not developing treatments; that’s the job of the pharmaceutical company. We develop technologies that enable them to improve their treatments research and development.”

3D bioprinting may not yet be at the point of printing entire functioning organs, but as Cellink’s work demonstrates, that doesn’t mean it can’t be used to help save lives.